Column of Trajan as a triumphal monument

Was the column of Trajan intended to be a triumphal monument from the start?

  • Pim Wissink - Faculty of Law
  • Else Huis in 't Veld - Faculty of Medicine
  • Marlinde Koops - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

This Wiki is part of the series The Column of Trajan. Other parts of this series are:

Details and surroundings The death of Trajan and his succession Functions of the Column throughout history The column of Trajan as a funerary monument

It is very likely that Trajan's column was always intended as a display of Roman and imperial power serving a propagandist and triumphal goal, instead of being intended as a funerary monument. Reasons to think so are among others the triumphal scenes on the frieze, the deification theme, the construction of the column and the location on the forum. These arguments will all be discussed further on this page.

1. Triumphal scenes on the frieze
2. Possible deification theme
3. Construction of the frieze and assembling the column
4. The first of its kind
5. Location on the forum
6. Sources

Triumphal scenes on the frieze

An option is that the Column of Trajan was always intended as a triumphal monument. This seems only logical, because it was built after and in commemoration of the Dacian wars (101 - 102 and 105 - 106) that ended in victory. Moreover, in more detailed view of the relief, scenes of triumphal nature can be found. These depict similar triumphal traits similar to other triumphal monuments of that period.

For example, scenes 73 to 78 half way up the column depict the ending of the first Dacian war. In these scenes the subjugation of the Dacian people and a prominent winged Victory, who inscribes a shield in commemoration of the Roman victory, are shown[1]. The winged Victory is for instance similar to the one found on the arch of Constantine, so it can be seen that these manifestations of victory are also depicted on other triumphal monuments.

Possible deification theme

In addition, there are similarities with various triumphal monuments. In the original state, the column was topped with a statue of Trajan. This creates the atmosphere of deification [8]. When one would stand on the ground it would seem like Trajan’s deeds as depicted on the column brought Trajan from the earth to the skies as the frieze rose to the skies with Trajan’s statue all the way up. The theme of deification is also used on other triumphal monuments. The deification of Trajan, for example, can be compared with the apotheosis of Titus depicted on the ceiling of the axial archway of the arch of Titus.

Construction of the frieze and assembling the column

Thirdly, it remains questionable whether the column was built and decorated with the frieze afterwards or first decorated and then put together[7]. The story told by the frieze is relatively random and rather incoherent suggesting that the subject was merely chosen to be of decorative function. Contradicting this is the fact that the Dacian wars cost the Roman army a significant number of soldiers making it an emotionally heavy-loaded subject, not likely to be used only for the plain sake of decoration[7]. Furthermore, the last option sounds more convenient when one considers the building process.

The first of its kind

If it is assumed then that the column was intended as a triumphal monument, why was it then a column and not an arch as was common in that period? The Column of Trajan is said to be the first of its kind, but the Hellenic practice of erecting free standing columns with statues on the top had been adopted in Republican Rome at least as early as the late fifth century BC. This is known because these type of victory columns were already depicted on Minucian coins[1].

Minucian coins showing examples of free standing columns with statues on top[3] Jupiter Columns from Mainz[4]

The habit of crafting relief into a column on the other hand, was first seen in the form of the so called Jupiter columns in Mainz in the 1st century AD. These arguments lead to the conclusion that the Column of Trajan was the first of its specific kind, but was preceded by the habit of building free-standing and decorated columns in order to celebrate triumph or victory. The Column of Trajan was a magnificent upgrade of these earlier columns which served as an example for it.

Location on the forum

The place of the column on the forum also remains partially mysterious. The column was built when the forum was already finished and located in between four main buildings, where it was barely visible. It is likely that the placement of the column between these four main buildings was a hidden message. The buildings contain two bibliothecae, one Greek and one Roman, the temple in commemoration of Trajan and the basilica Ulpia. These buildings in this following order stand for the virtues of knowledge, religion and justice[2], which are the virtues that Trajan liked to identify himself with. It should be noted that though the temple was not yet built at the time the column was finished, there were plans to build a temple at that location.

The surroundings of the Column of Trajan[6] The torture scene on the Column of Trajan. [5]

Lastly, the column bears some slight propagandist function. The ‘torture scene’ for example, is said to depict Dacian women torturing Roman soldiers. The purpose of this scene was to move the Roman citizens and to stir up their pro-war feeling. Fact is that the excessive expansions Trajan made with his wars strained the resources of the Roman empire, as the newly obtained territory was difficult to sustain. Later this may have contributed to the downfall of the empire. In that sense the column was used, in a way, to justify all the expeditions Trajan had sought out to undertake.


  1. Florea Bobu Florescu, Die Trajanssaüle: Grundfragen und Tafeln, Bukarest : Akademie-Verlag ; Bonn : Rudolf Habelt Verlag GmbH, (1969 )p 29-32
  2. Laura Salah Nasrallah, Christian responses to Roman art and architecture : the second-century church amid the spaces of empire, Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, (2010) p.154
  3. A Brooklyn Sabbatical. Spiral Columns? Rusticated Drums?(as accessed on the 27th of August, 2015)
  4. C414 Roman Art and Archaeology. Trajan's Column. (As accessed on the 27th of August, 2015)
  5. Wikipedia page with picture of the torture scene (as accessed on the 27th of August, 2015)
  6. Trajan's Column (as accessed on the 5th of October, 2015)
  7. Ian Richmond, Trajan's army on Trajan's Column, British School at Rome (December 1982)
  8. Frank Leppard and Sheppard Frere, Trajan’s column, Fonthill media, (November 19, 2015) p 2 – p 47